Legit Review: ‘Kafka on the Shore’

Courtesy of Lincoln Center Festival

The surreal power of Haruki Murakami's novel comes through intermittently in this visually stunning production.

Lincoln Center Festival can always be counted on to inject some class into the soporific summer theater season by hosting avant-garde work by celebrated international companies. This year’s visitors include Japan’s Ninagawa Company, which returns this year with a startling stage version of Haruki Murakami’s surreal novel, “Kafka on the Shore.” As visualized by company director Yukio Ninagawa, this metaphysical fable follows the parallel quests of a young boy in search of his mother and an old man looking for a lost cat, and features talking cats, fearsome villains, and stunning stagecraft. (Next: Singapore and Seoul.)

At three solid hours, the show loses considerable magic by cramming in too many non-visual details from the novel’s mythic storyline about a 15-year-old boy named Kafka Tamura (Nino Furuhata), who runs away from home to escape an Oedipal prophecy that predicts him mating with his missing mother.  Kafka (the literary name he has chosen for himself) is a vital character in the novel, in part because he narrates his own story, but in this less intimate theatrical context he’s more of a soft, bland presence.

In the town of Takamatsu, the wandering boy is granted refuge in a private library run by the elegant but haunted Miss Saeki (Rie Miyazawa). Here, he meets Oshima (Naohito Fujiki), a transgender librarian who becomes his confidant and with whom he shares his existential thoughts. For obvious reasons, these talky scenes also lose their intellectual zest on stage.

Frank Galati, a versatile company member of Steppenwolf, has had unqualified success, however, in adapting a parallel plot from the novel about Nakata (Katsumi Kiba, in a wonderfully disarming performance), a meek old man from Hiroshima who lost some of his faculties in the war. But this endearing fellow gained the infinitely more valuable ability to communicate with cats, and now makes a modest living hunting lost cats.

And yes, we do meet human-sized versions of the cats Nakata encounters while searching for a lost tortoiseshell named Goma, among them Otsuka (Yukio Tsukamoto), a helpful black tomcat, and lovely Mimi (Katrine Mutsukiko Doi Vincent), a graceful Siamese beauty. (The animal costumes by Ayako Maeda are fantastic.)

Unhappy man, Nakata also meets the infamous cat-killer, the iconic Johnnie Walker (a very scary Masato Shinkawa in black boots and top hat), who collects the heads of his little victims after killing them with atrocious skill — skills as graphically displayed as Murakami describes them in his novel — and gathering up their souls for his own cruel and selfish use.

Meanwhile, young Kafka meets another advertising icon on his travels — Col. Sanders (Masakatsu Toriyama) — a jolly-looking fellow who turns out to be a pimp.  Honestly, the meaning of Murakami’s symbolism is as baffling here as it is in the novel.

The sense of enchantment that defines Murakami’s whimsical story comes across best in the amazing design work under the masterful helming of the company director. Making full use of the vast stage, set designer Tsukasa Nakagoshi fills the space with Plexiglas cubes that glide on and off the stage containing scene settings and the characters who figure in them.

Some are intimate settings, like the quiet library where Kafka takes refuge and the laboratory where the sadistic Johnnie Walker forces Nakata to watch his acts of torture. But there’s also a bus, a truck, various truck stops and a brothel to help us follow the separate odysseys of the young boy and the old cat whisperer. There are even bucolic dioramas of the deep woods that the travelers must navigate on their existential journeys.

Motoi Hattori’s feverish fluorescent lighting, Katsuji Takahashi’s alarmingly metallic  soundscape, and the discordant music by Umitaro Abe all contribute to the hypnotic nature of the piece. But neither light nor sound can fully penetrate the deep, dark landscape of Murakami’s mind.

Legit Review: 'Kafka on the Shore'

Lincoln Center/David H. Koch Theater; 2,600 seats; $103.50 top


A Lincoln Center Festival presentation of the Ninagawa Company production of a play in two acts, based on the book by Haruki Murakami, adapted for the stage by Frank Galati. Opened & reviewed July 23, 2015. Running time: 3 HOURS


Directed by Yukio Ninagawa. Translated by Shunsuke Hiratsuka. Sets, Tsukasa Nakagoshi; costumes, Ayako Maeda; lighting, Motoi Hattori; sound, Katsuji Takahashi; hair & makeup, Yoko Kawamura & Yuko Chiba; original music, Umitaro Abe; production stage manager, Yuichiro Kanai.


Rie Miyazawa, Naohito Fujiki, Nino Furuhata, Katsumi Kiba and company

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  1. meghan says:

    Am very appalled by the quality of this “review” – has the reviewer even seen the production? Nakata is barely unhappy as a character and I can’t imagine what gross misreading must have happened to allow the reviewer to imagine that Kafka himself met Col. Sanders. This was so unreadable I just had to point it out.

  2. dougm says:

    Wow. I hope that the reviewer wasn’t paid very much since he got so many facts wrong: Nakata was from Tokyo not, Hiroshima, he wasn’t “injured in the war”, there is no brothel or laboratory in the book or the play, Kafka does not meet Col. Sanders, and on and on. Did she lie about seeing the play or reading the novel? It might have also been worth mentioning that the play was entirely in Japanese. Though Marilyn may not have noticed that there were subtitles above the stage.

  3. lauramadugan says:

    This review hit a few things spot on, but totally loses legitimacy when it notes that Kafka meets Colonel Sanders. Was the reviewer even watching the second half of the piece? The vital elements and actors from that section were not even mentioned. Take this oUT of the category of “legit” reviews.

  4. omg says:

    Kafka is SUCH A DRAGGGG! get over him ppl O_O

  5. stanprager says:

    Don’t know whether I would like the play, but the reviewer — Marilyn Stasio — doesn’t seem to have really understood or appreciated the novel it is based upon … I’m just sayin’

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